On Monday evening, History Prof. Juan Cole addressed a group of approximately 30 people about the conflict in Syria at a teach-in discussion in the University of Michigan League hosted by the student organizations Michigan Refugee Assistance Program and Books Not Bombs.
LSA junior Leila Eter, co-chair of Michigan Refugee Assistance Program at the University, said the event was held to provide information to students who had questions about the refugee crisis but may not have felt comfortable asking them in public settings — especially after President Donald Trump’s recent immigration ban on several Muslim-majority countries.
“We had a lot of people come up to us specifically after the executive order on refugees and immigrants asking us, because they knew that we knew about the topic, what was happening in Syria,” she said. “They almost felt embarrassed that they didn’t know about it, so we wanted to provide, because we had the position to do so, (a) comfortable setting and educational setting for people to learn about it from the ground up so that they feel more educated on the topic.”
Cole started by explaining how the conflict began with peaceful protests in Syria in March 2011, around the time of the Arab Spring, in which both Tunisia and Egypt overthrew their long-term rulers.
Cole stated these protests began with the youth and expanded to a broader population as loss of employment and lack of opportunity became more frequent. He also described the unrest in Syria in regard to President Bashar Assad’s authoritarian regime.
“Any time there’s a ceasefire or a slight political opening, people come out and protest,” he said. “They protest the regime, they even protest ISIL.”
Though the revolution did begin peacefully, Cole described the violent reaction of the regime and the military tactics it used to respond to the protests, including firing tank shells into groups of peaceful demonstrators.
“This regime is not nice,” he said. “It’s not a nice regime. It kills prisoners. There’s nothing more helpless in the world than a prisoner. They torture prisoners to death. Not one, not two, how many prisoners do we think they tortured to death in the last five years? At least 10,000.”
Four hundred thousand Syrians were found dead by the end of 2016, 11 million are currently homeless and 13.5 million are in need of some form of aid or assistance, Cole stated in his presentation.
One of his conclusions about civil wars was the idea that many people don’t understand how easily, or how quickly, a nation can fall into this sort of unrest.
“People don’t understand civil wars if they don’t live through them,” he explained. “They think it’s something that happens to other people, but it can happen to you. You can fall into a civil war.”
The majority of Syrian refugees escaping the chaos of their home nation have fled to Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey. For comparison, he stated the United States has let in 22,000 refugees, while Turkey has let in 2.5 million. Turkey had many economic benefits from the influx of refugees.
“The refugees, when they came in, they increased the money supply,” Cole said. “They figure that Turkey’s economy grew 4.5 percent because of the refugees coming in, otherwise it would have stalled out.”
Once refugees enter these new countries, however, they often find similar hardships with standards of living, he explained. Many are often denied access to local jobs and, as a result, are isolated and forced to live in tent cities.
Michigan has the second highest population of Syrian refugees in the United States, after California, with more than 1,400 Syrian refugees in September 2016. A majority of the Michigan refugee families reside in the cities Troy and Dearborn.
LSA junior Alaina Dehner attended the event because she was hoping to learn more about an issue with details that might be misconstrued or not fully explored through social media conversations or other sources that many college students are exposed to.
“I think it’s important for students to come to events like these if only to stay informed,” she said. “There’s not a whole lot we, as students, can do directly involving the situation, directly impacting the situation, especially with the stance that Prof. Cole mentioned that America’s taking on it right now, but just to stay informed I think is of the utmost importance.”